Implementing Whole-School Reform. ERIC Digest.
by Hertling, Elizabeth
Comprehensive reform, whole-school reform, schoolwide change -- no matter
what name is used to refer to it, this reform movement seeks to improve
school performance by simultaneously aligning all aspects of a school's
environment with a central, guiding vision. Increasingly, states and districts
around the country are jumping on the comprehensive reform bandwagon, especially
with the incentive of the Comprehensive School Reform Demonstration (CSRD)
program, which makes $150 million in federal funds available to schools.
This Digest examines some of the key issues surrounding the implementation
of schoolwide reform and the factors that can lead to failure or success.
HOW SUCCESSFUL HAVE SCHOOLS BEEN IN IMPLEMENTING WHOLE-SCHOOL REFORM?
These schoolwide programs can produce compelling results such as substantial
gains in student achievement. However, there is a catch. The designs must
be well implemented, and that is where many schools and districts have
run into problems.
In 1998, the RAND Corporation released a study of schools that were
implementing whole-school designs. Two years after adopting the designs,
only about half of the schools were implementing the core elements of the
programs schoolwide, and 45 percent were below that level (Glennan, Jr.
HOW IMPORTANT IS OUTSIDE ASSISTANCE?
Because comprehensive reform encompasses so many complex aspects of
school organization, a school typically seeks assistance from an outside
organization. The school works with a design team to implement the specific
model it has chosen. The design team is therefore crucial to the success
of implementation, often providing resources and support to the school
for up to three years.
The support that design teams provide varies from model to model. Some
design teams are more prescriptive, providing a specific set of standards
for curriculum and assessment. Others work with the schools to help them
create their own standards (New American Schools 1998). Some work with
staff for up to a year before beginning implementation; others dive right
in (Glennan, Jr. 1998).
New American Schools (NAS), a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that
assists and supports schools through the implementation of comprehensive
school designs, cites many benefits that result from the use of design
teams to facilitate reform. For one, design teams integrate reform efforts
into one comprehensive effort, rather than trying to implement fragments.
Design teams also focus on results and recommend actions based on research
and development that would be difficult for most local education agencies
to duplicate. This can save schools the time and effort of having to invent
their own models of reform. Perhaps most importantly, design teams provide
a strong vision to schools that can sustain them through the long process
of implementation (NAS).
HOW SHOULD SCHOOLS CHOOSE AN EFFECTIVE DESIGN?
In a guide to choosing comprehensive school reform models, the Educational
Research Service (1998) says the school's first, and most essential, step
is to conduct a thorough self-study. If the school carefully and realistically
identifies its strengths and weaknesses, as well as what staff expects
from a design, its chance of successfully implementing reform is much greater.
ERS suggests asking such questions as "How does this design fit with the
school's vision and goals? What sort of professional development does the
design team provide? Is the school prepared to make changes in school governance?"
Others agree that if schools take their time in choosing a design, they
will be more likely to experience success. "Schools must latch on to a
model wholeheartedly, then have time and support to make it work," says
John Anderson, president of NAS (1998).
Schools should choose a design of their own free will, adds Susan Bodilly,
a senior social scientist at RAND: "If a design is forced upon a school,
you have a high probability that it will not go forward" (Olson 1999).
Others express caution that schools should be provided with some guidelines
to prevent them from making the wrong decision about a model (Olson).
Once schools have assessed their needs, how can they determine whether
a design will improve student achievement? ERS says that effective programs
will set clear goals, as well as provide a means to assess students' progress
toward those goals.
A RAND study found that clear communication between the design team
and the school is essential for implementation, support, and teacher perception
of the design (Berends and colleagues 1998). Bodilly says that designs
that provide more prescriptive guidelines tend to have a smoother implementation
because they require less time and expertise on the part of teachers (Olson
WHAT PROBLEMS CAN FUNDING POSE?
In many cases, funding presents a significant impediment to the implementation
of a design. Lack of funding can lead to loss of crucial staff, discourage
reformers, and ultimately kill the reform (ERS).
Federal funding from the CSRD program provides grants of up to $50,000
to each school seeking to implement comprehensive reform. CSRD funds, however,
are only a small portion of what is needed to successfully implement whole-school
reform. While the $50,000 grant may cover costs associated with products
and services provided by an external developer, schools must also fund
the additional costs of providing time for teachers' professional development,
new technology, and travel. First-year costs differ greatly from program
to program, but can range anywhere from $98,000 for ATLAS Communities to
as high as $588,000 for Co-NECT (American Institutes for Research, 1999).
The Education Commission of the States (1998) recommends that states
and districts participating in comprehensive school reform create an investment
fund that draws on public and private sources to support the implementation
of reform models. Districts can reduce costs of schoolwide reform by using
current staff members as facilitators instead of hiring additional personnel
(American Institutes for Research). When clusters of schools in the same
district implement comprehensive school reform, some developers provide
services at a lower per-school cost (Education Commission of the States).
Anderson argues that because a schoolwide design focuses a school's work,
educators have more time to reallocate existing resources to fund implementation.
For some schools, the acquisition of funding is not the only problem--deciding
just how to allocate that money can be a stumbling block. For instance,
school management teams consisting of parents and educators may struggle
to create schoolwide budgets with little or no experience to draw upon
WHAT OTHER FACTORS AFFECT IMPLEMENTATION?
Strong leadership is crucial to the implementation of schoolwide reform
(Olson). Schaffer and colleagues (1997) point out that in many schools
where reform failed, principals did not keep the staff aligned to the goals
of the design. As well, many principals were not knowledgeable about basic
precepts of the reform program, and therefore could not provide good leadership.
Teacher commitment to the reform is crucial in sustaining implementation.
"We're implementing so many new things at once. It's a lot to ask teachers
to digest," says one New Jersey teacher (Hendrie 1999). Teachers may feel
threatened by change or view the reform as a fad that will not last; in
that case, they won't commit their energy to the reform (Schaffer and colleagues).
Teachers should be assured that reform will provide an opportunity to develop
professionally and should also be allowed to "transfer with dignity" if
they do not agree to participate in the reform (ERS).
Students may resist comprehensive reform as well, especially in the
case of designs that change curriculum drastically. "They don't want to
change. We have spoon-fed them for so long," says one fourth-grade teacher
of her students (Hendrie). School leaders can garner support for reform
by communicating clearly with students, parents, and community members.
Another problem, RAND researchers found, is that many principals and
teachers do not feel that they have the authority to reallocate resources
or make the significant changes in school operations that are needed to
implement designs. Clearly, the district's support is important. In addition,
the designs must align sufficiently with districts' accountability systems
so that teachers do not feel they must deviate from the designs to satisfy
state standards (Glennan, Jr.).
In time, more schools will gain experience with whole-school reform,
and researchers will investigate in greater detail the factors that contribute
to its success. Then we will know whether these designs have become just
another program that is turned on and off when convenient or whether they
truly can transform schools comprehensively.
American Institutes for Research. An Educator's Guide to Schoolwide
Reform. Arlington, Virginia: Educational Research Service, 1999. 141 pages.
Anderson, John. "Comprehensive Support." Education Week (June 24, 1998):
Berends, Mark, and colleagues. Monitoring the Progress of New American
Schools: A Description of Implementing Schools in a Longitudinal Sample.
Santa Monica, California: RAND Education, 1998. 137 pages.
Education Commission of the States. Comprehensive School Reform: Allocating
Federal Funds. Denver, Colorado: Author, 1998. 8 pages.
Educational Research Service. Comprehensive Models for School Improvement:
Finding the Right Match and Making It Work. Arlington, Virginia: Author,
1998. 114 pages.
Glennan, Jr., Thomas K. New American Schools After Six Years. Santa
Monica, California: RAND Corporation, 1998. 90 pages.
Hendrie, Caroline. "In New Jersey Schools, Reform Keeps to Its Own Schedule."
Education Week (April 21, 1999): 15-16.
New American Schools. Blueprints for School Success: A Guide to New
American Schools Designs. Arlington, Virginia: Educational Research Service,
1998. 107 pages.
Olson, Lynn. "Following the Plan." Education Week (April 14, 1999):
Schaffer, Eugene C., and colleagues. Impediments to Reform: An Analysis
of Destabilizing Issues in Ten Promising Programs. Arlington, Virginia:
Educational Research Service, 1997. 17 pages. ED 408 676.